Kaikoura - Whale Watching and Wildlife Encounters

Kaikoura is famed as the best whale watching spot in New Zealand, but there's plenty more to see beyond those mammoth marine animals.

Kaikoura is a small town located 180 kilometres north of Christchurch and is set in the protective shelter of the Kaikoura Peninsula. It offers a plethora of marine activities of which whale watching is the highlight.

Why so many whales?

About a kilometre off the Kaikoura Coast, the Kaikoura Canyon and 1000 metre deep Hikurangi Trench are formed by a maze of underwater troughs and canyons.

The warm waters of these canyons combine with the cold waters of the Antarctic to form an ideal location for a huge variety of marine life.

Which whales when?

Gigantic sperm whales and dolphins inhabit these waters all year round. Migratory humpback whales appear in June and July and orca can be found from December to February. The mammals come here lured by the abundance of easy food and humans get an amazing opportunity to watch these majestic marine mammals at close range.

Whale watching tours

Kaikoura is synonymous with whale watching and the main operator is Whale Watch Kaikoura. There are five boats running each day, each trip lasting about two and a half hours.

You meet at the train station from where you board a bus to South Bay and a speed boat takes you a few kilometres offshore where you get to watch the whales at much closer quarters than is possible at most other places in the world.

From the air

Another interesting alternative is aerial whale watching. You get to fly in a helicopter or small plane for half an hour to view the whales from above. It is good to carry a pair of binoculars to get a better view of these majestic mammals.

Swimming with dolphins and seals

Another popular activity with tourists in Kaikoura is swimming with the dolphins. The sole commercial operator for this truly unique activity is Dolphin Encounter. Their office on Esplanade has changing rooms and includes a pre-trip briefing.

They run three boats and roughly three trips per day. You have the option of swimming with the dolphins or just watching them. You are advised to book well in advance, especially in summer, as it is a high-demand activity.

For something different, try swimming with the seals. They are even more curious than the dolphins. It can be done either from the shore or by boat.

Dolphin and seal encounters tend to be more enjoyable if you have had previous snorkelling experience.

Scuba diving

Scuba diving is another popular activity. Diving companies run ‘resort dives’ which is scuba diving accompanied by trained instructor if you have never done it before.

For the more experienced divers, there are dive trips to temperate reefs with kelp forests or large brown cold water seaweeds, nudibranches or highly colourful marine gastropods and sponges.

Albatross encounters

For all avian fans, the Albatross Encounter is a rewarding experience where you watch rare endangered species of birds at extremely close quarters.

You get on a boat and travel offshore for a couple of kilometres at which point bait is laid to attract all types of seabirds, and specifically albatrosses.

Sea kayaking and sea tours

Sea kayaking operators like Kaikoura Kayaks offer half day and full day guided trips. This is an excellent way of seeing marine life in their natural form upfront and close.

For a nice eco tour with a spot of fishing, book in with Kaikoura Marine Tours. They offer informative seagoing trips to view marine animals.